'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, July 03, 2009

Regime Change with a Human Face 

I have been too busy to post for the last week or so, because of work and family commitments, but, now, I am back with this brief one. While I was away in Monterey County last weekend, there was a coup in Honduras. And, preliminary indications suggested that the Obama administration, unlike the previous Bush one, was on the side of the good guys.

Think again, in light of this withering analysis by George Ciccariello-Maher:

Previously resigned Obamaphiles, desperate to grasp at any shred of proof suggesting that they were right to get high on hope and expect imminent change, are closing ranks around their government and insisting that the U.S. government’s response to the Honduran coup is proof positive of such change. Some even go so far as to claim that the Obama administration’s support for Zelaya has been “unambiguous,” adding that “complaints that Washington hasn’t acted fast enough to denounce the Honduran coup are silly and ignorant on the face of them.”

Let’s be clear: no one is saying that U.S. foreign policy is the same under Obama as under Bush, but nor did we expect them to be. Rather, we expected things to look very different while maintaining an underlying continuity. And for anyone who looks closely, Washington’s response to the Honduran coup has been the definition of ambiguity, and such knee-jerk reactions to criticism simply fail to explain the subtle progression of this response, and moreover willfully neglect the subtleties and nuances that State Department officials and Obama himself have deployed.

Let’s lay this out briefly: On Sunday, at a meeting with narco-terrorist Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, Obama issued the following carefully-worded statement: “I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

Such a purposefully-vague statement was meant to communicate a wait-and-see approach: yes, we are “deeply concerned,” but what’s done is done and we must now work toward the reestablishment of “democratic norms.” The implication is clear: fascistic coup leaders are quite capable of leading a transition back toward the very same democracy they attacked, and the United States is still hoping to avoid Zelaya’s return.

Some commentators were understandably perplexed when the text of a conference call with unnamed “Senior State Department Officials” was released later Sunday, claiming that the United States recognizes only Zelaya as the legitimate leader of Honduras, while implying that the State Department would be calling for his return via an OAS resolution. But the sharp disconnect between this statement and Obama’s vagaries would only deepen when Secretary of State Clinton stepped into the fray, contradicting claims by both the president and the unnamed senior officials by insisting that the U.S. is not currently classifying events in Honduras as a coup and is not yet demanding Zelaya’s return, but only a vague return to democratic normalcy.

This, of course was another hedge, allowing the State Department leeway both to negotiate with and carry on business as usual with the coup regime were it to remain and to pressure Zelaya for a conditional return. As to the former, the U.S. seems unwilling to take the risk of cutting direct aid to Honduras, a legal requirement if a “coup” is declared. The latter is arguably more important: the State Department under Clinton most certainly did not support Zelaya’s efforts to radically challenge entrenched elites through a constitutional reform, and will likely pressure him to return humbled and defanged, with no such transformative aspirations.

John Negroponte, for one, sees things this way, arguing that Clinton “wants to preserve some leverage to try and get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on a referendum.” And when it comes to containing and undermining Central American leftists, few know the playbook by heart like Negroponte, who as U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the Contra wars personally oversaw both death squads and the drug trade. Indeed, against all the left-liberal defenders of the Obama administration, it was probably Mara Liason who was closest to the truth when, speaking as one of three panelists on Fox News (all of whom, incidentally, support the coup), argued that:

“I think they are perfectly happy with the outcome… Now, I think it’s the correct public diplomacy and policy to say, of course we’re for the democratically elected president and we don’t like coups in Latin America, but when all the dust settles, they will be perfectly happy to work with this new guy. They are not working to get Zelaya back into power… This is the outcome the United States would have preferred, this is not the method they would want to publicly condone.”

This is the iron fist with a velvet glove: while it may feel softer, it’s as “interventionist” as ever.

But all this aside, what is truly shocking is that the government is being taken at its word in the first place. Here, the White House and State Department functions as a stand-in for the U.S. state as a whole, obscuring an entire history of underhanded interventionism, especially from the CIA. Few have sought more insistently to reveal this dark underside of U.S. interventionism in Latin America than Eva Golinger, whose legal efforts to demand the release of government documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed the true extent of the Bush administration’s role in the 2002 coup against Chávez (published in The Chávez Code). Golinger, who has been liveblogging the coup as it has progressed, describes a situation in which it would be utterly implausible to assume the United States government was not at least passively involved:

“The United States maintains a military base in Soto Cano, Honduras, that houses approximately 500 soldiers and special forces. The U.S. military group in Honduras is one of the largest in U.S. Embassies in the region. The leaders of the coup today are graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas, a training camp for dictators and repressive forces in Latin America…The US Military Group in Honduras trains around 300 Honduran soldiers every year, provides more than $500,000 annually to the Honduran Armed Forces and additionally provides $1.4 million for a military education and exchange program for around 300 more Honduran soldiers every year.”

As Greg Grandin described the situation on Democracy Now!: “The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government… if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it’s Honduras… So if the U.S. is opposed to this coup going forward, it won’t go forward.” To which we could add Jeremy Scahill’s response: “Obama and the US military could likely have halted this coup with a simple series of phone calls,” or, we might add, by threatening to pull funding (which now, even after the coup, they seem unwilling to do). When we consider the leverage the U.S. enjoys in Honduras, claims by the Obama administration that they attempted to prevent the coup border on the absurd. Even more absurd, however, are efforts to defend the continued funding of a coup regime as “progress.”

Ciccariello-Maher's evaluation of the US response raises a lot of interesting questions: Did the Obama administration order the Honduran oligarchy to take action? Probably not. Did the Obama administration know in advance that it was going to happen? Probably, for the reason put forth by Grandin, although we cannot dismiss the possibility that people within the US military and intelligence community held back their knowledge just long enough for it to go forward.

There are other questions that we can answer more confidently. Is the Obama administration willing to take action to compel the perpetrators of the coup to relinquish power. Not yet, and possibly not ever. Indeed, consistent with Obama's trademark caution, he is having it both ways as long as he can, giving the perpetrators of the coup time to legitimize their rule while distancing himself from their actions. Some time soon, he will be compelled to take a clearer stance, and there is no reason to believe that he will act contrary to the wishes of the military industrial complex and order it to sever its historic ties the Honduran oligarchy.

At the risk of looking very silly, I don't see Zelaya ever returning to power, and, several months from now, after the military junta has conducted a farcical election to create a democratic veneer for itself, the US will urge the rest of Central and South America to acquiesce to reality. For, while Obama may not be willing to sully his hands with the dirty work of regime change in the Americas, he will be perfectly willing to enjoy the fruit of the labors of those who do.

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